Perhaps America's infatuation with racing has finally crossed the line to insanity. Cars, boats, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles and, yes, lawn mowers.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy, and I am," said Al Bitterman, who narrowly lost in the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association final last year to three-time champion Bob Cleveland, the Babe Ruth of sodbusters.

The association's rules strictly forbid leaving the cutting blades on the mowers while racing. The engine blocks cannot be changed, but many other modifications are permitted to the riding mowers.

There are 20 races in a season--from Cut Bank, Mont., to Hampton, Ga. The STA-BIL championship tour will be more visible next fall when TNN televises six races on tape delay, called Sunday Night Mower Madness, beginning Nov. 14.

"The exposure we've had on TNN has worked out perfectly, and it's allowed us to mow across the country," said Bruce Kaufman, president of the Glenview, Ill.-based circuit.

They race on asphalt, clay and grass, with most courses measuring an eighth of a mile. The mowers can reach 85 mph on asphalt, but usually don't exceed 45 mph. Would-be racers can join the association--founded on April Fool's Day in 1992--for $25 and pay an entry fee of $5-$25 per race. There is no prize money.

Basketball

Penny Pitching in L.A.?

Penny Hardaway met with Lakers executive Jerry West recently, fueling speculation the unrestricted free agent guard might be reunited with former teammate Shaquille O'Neal. The Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel reported the Lakers have considered adding Hardaway, possibly in a sign-and-trade deal with the Orlando Magic.

Lakers spokesman John Black confirmed that West met with Hardaway last week, but would not comment on what was discussed.

Hardaway, who turned 28 Sunday, and O'Neal, 27, combined to lead Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Houston Rockets. O'Neal signed a free agent deal with the Lakers in July 1996.

The Lakers are over the salary cap, meaning the only way they could pay Hardaway anything close to market value would be to work out a sign-and-trade deal with the Magic. One name mentioned as a possibility in that scenario is Glen Rice. The Lakers recently picked up their $7 million option on Rice for next season. . . .

Several local players were selected in the inaugural International Basketball League draft earlier this week in Baltimore.

The Baltimore BayRunners drafted Shawnta Rogers and Yegor Mescheriakov from George Washington; Laron Profit, Obinna Ekezie and Rodney Elliott from Maryland; Norman Nolan from Virginia; Charles Smith from Georgetown and Phil Chenier Jr. from Howard.

The St. Louis Swarm selected Jamal Robbins (Virginia) and Lonnie Harrell (Eastern High and Georgetown); the Trenton Shooting Stars selected Moochie Norris (Cardozo High) and Darren McLinton (Springbrook High); the Las Vegas Silver Bandits selected Victor Page (Georgetown), Damian Owens (Bowie High) and David Butler (Coolidge); the Richmond Rhythm picked up Junior Burrough (Virginia) and Ace Custis (Virginia Tech); and the New Mexico Slam drafted Michael Powell (Anacostia).

Olympics

Documents Viewed

Documents made public yesterday show organizers seeking to bring the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta made early contact with International Olympic Committee members later disciplined for their role in the Salt Lake City bribery scandal.

The Associated Press joined two other media outlets in taking a preliminary glimpse through Olympic documents that initially showed no evidence of wrongdoing on the scale of Salt Lake City, where organizers gave gifts to secure the 2002 Winter Games.

One memo shows former Olympics chief Billy Payne ordering an $875 live bulldog to help secure the bid of the Cuban IOC member, and another shows him requesting free airfare for two IOC members. And in a show of how Payne and his staff tried to find the personal touch, one memo reminds a staffer to get some baseballs signed by home run king Hank Aaron for officials from the baseball-mad Dominican Republic.

But most of the documents reviewed yesterday ranged from mundane thank-you notes to tersely written letters quibbling over printing bills.

Pan Am Games

Cuban Shooter Defects

Cuban pistol shooter Abel Juncosa Reyes defected when his team arrived at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, sources confirmed. Reyes walked into a Royal Canadian Mounted Police station on Tuesday and asked to remain in Canada. He was turned over to federal immigration authorities, then released pending an immigration hearing, probably in September.

The Cuban team is being housed at the Southport athletes village outside of Winnipeg. It was expected to be subjected to heavy security measures after five members of the Cuban basketball delegation defected at the Tournament of the Americas in Puerto Rico last week.

Tennis

Stevensons on '20/20'

Alexandra Stevenson's mother said she included Julius Erving's name as her daughter's father on her birth certificate because "I wanted to give Alexandra a sense of belonging."

The disclosure that the former basketball star was the father of the 18-year-old tennis player was made during Wimbledon, at which Stevenson reached the semifinals.

"It was actually something done with a lot of thought and care," Samantha Stevenson said of her decision to list Erving on the birth certificate.

Stevenson, a sports writer, made the comments during an interview with Barbara Walters, which will be shown on ABC's "20/20" tonight.

"I never thought anyone would go in and get the birth certificate," Stevenson said. "I thought it was private information. . . . I didn't really look into the fact that you could go in and buy a birth certificate."

Alexandra Stevenson, when asked by Walters if she missed having a father, said: "It just didn't bug me. I just pretty much didn't notice it at all."

Soccer

Women Strike Gold

Following the success of the United States in the Women's World Cup, soccer's regional governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean announced it will hold its first women's championship next year.

No dates or sites were released by the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football (CONCACAF). Three national teams from outside the region will be invited to the CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup. CONCACAF has held a men's championship biannually since 1991.

The United States won its second Women's World Cup this month, and the final against China drew the highest television rating for a soccer game--men or women--ever in the United States.

CAPTION: Kevin Carmichael sloshes through mud competing at a lawn mower racing competition in Decatur, Ala.